Border war stokes Af-Pak tensions at key juncture

KABUL, July 7, 2011 (AFP) - An escalating border war in the badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan is fanning tensions at a key juncture as Afghans and Americans reach out to the Taliban for peace talks.

For weeks, security forces on both sides of the unmarked border have issued claim and counter-claim over cross-border rocket and guerilla attacks that have reportedly killed dozens of residents and forced hundreds of others to flee.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Pakistan's army chief Ashfaq Kayani the attacks must stop, the Pakistanis summoned the Afghan ambassador and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani complained back to Karzai.

"We believe that this seriously hurts our relations with Pakistan and this endangers the War on Terror," Afghan presidency spokesman Hamid Elmi told AFP.

For years the neighbours have traded accusations over the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants embedded in both countries, who criss cross the porous, unmarked border and fight security forces from both governments.

The row is exacerbated by the fact that Afghanistan disputes the 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) Durrand Line, the 19th century demarcation of the border that separates Pashtun families and tribes.

But the intensity of the recriminations and reported attacks has never been stronger than in the last month, with Pakistan reeling from the fallout of Osama bin Laden's death and momentum gathering for talks with the Taliban.

Since late May, Afghan officials say some 800 rockets, mortars and artillery shells have been fired from Pakistan into Afghan villages, leaving dozens of civilians dead and injured.

More than 250 families in Kunar have fled their homes, said Mohammad Fazil, who heads a provincial department for displaced persons.

Popular anger has triggered small rallies in recent days in the capital and near the border in the city of Asad Abad, where demonstrators threatened to take matters into their own hands if Afghan forces failed to fight back.

The violence underscores the problems faced in attempts to forge contacts between militants and power brokers to negotiate an end to a decade of conflict since US-led troops brought down the Taliban regime in Kabul.

Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based independent analyst, said the attacks are meant to show Afghanistan that no peace can be long-lasting without Pakistan's consent. Pakistanis have recently complained about being left out of peace attempts.

"Through this they are telling the Afghan government and the US and NATO that they can destabilise Afghanistan if they are left out," he said.

US troops in Afghanistan earlier this year abandoned remote outposts in the far reaches of Kunar and Nuristan provinces, where they had failed to win over locals, in favour of concentrating on larger population centres.

Giles Dorronsoro, analyst with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace, issued a report last month criticising the Western military strategy.

"If anything, the current strategy is making a political solution less likely, notably because it is antagonizing Pakistan without containing the rise of the armed opposition," wrote Dorronsoro.

"The crisis on both sides of the border is growing, and the evacuation of Western security forces from the Afghan side limits the capacity for negotiations with the Pakistanis."

Pakistan denies it has targeted Afghan territory, saying that a few stray rounds may have crossed the border and complaining that villages on its side of the border have been the victim of Afghan-based Taliban violence.

Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said that Pakistani operations had caused insurgents to flee across the border to Afghanistan, from where they were launching attacks on Pakistan.

"They have been given a space there (in Afghanistan). So this is their side's responsibility not to allow them to do so," said Abbas.

The post-Taliban administration in Kabul is deeply suspicious of Pakistan for its historic links to the Taliban and for militant strongholds on its territory that officials say are used to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

As the US-led coalition negotiates an exit from the 10-year war, Pakistan is clear it wants to be part of any peace talks, but its relations with the United States, at least publicly, have hit an all-time low.

But Islamabad-based analyst Imtiaz Gul said there was no escaping the need to involve Pakistan in any long-term peace for the region.

"Geography accords this role to Pakistan. You may try without Pakistan but where does the guarantee come that the security will be lasting?"

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